Little Details (3/4/10)

Armed and ready

March 4, 2010

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

Traveling by train behind the Iron Curtain, a Czech border guard once held up my underwear for “inspection.”

As a Westerner, I was subjected to an added layer of scrutiny. My backpack was searched meticulously, item by item. Nothing was left untouched, including entries in my address book, some of which were noted.

Furor and indignation welled up inside me. I wanted to pounce, snatch back my personal items and yell at the guard for violating my privacy. As a 20-something on a two-year stint studying in Eastern Europe, I knew better. Reacting with umbrage — as a free-thinking American — might result in being hauled from the train for interrogation.

People living under the Soviet regime had so little power — officially. Those drawn to uniformed positions as border guards and police officers were seemingly grasping for small scraps of influence discarded by the ruling elite who sold their souls to the Communist Party.

Visiting Poland in 1981, mere months before imposition of martial law, I witnessed my mother slip a Hillshire Farms Kielbasa to a customs official at Warsaw’s airport. Casting her glance left, then right, the woman accepted my mother’s gift, sneaking it into her desk. Meat was rationed. Sausage proved a valuable commodity.

The official waved us through without searching our luggage. We could have been bringing in an aromatic stash of hashish or low-grade nuclear material. The reality: We carried personal belongings, tins of Polish ham bought in America and peanut butter for our family. Food shortages were prevalent; black marketeering of foodstuffs abounded.

My parents required my sister and me to relinquish our carry-ons to enormous jugs of cooking oil, an item our relatives wrote was in short supply. I barely squeezed my diary and toiletries alongside a heavy helping of canola. It seems comical now, lugging cooking oil on our backs for the transatlantic flight.

Four years later, en route from Budapest to Prague, my traveling companion and I were armed and ready. I’d spent time with Tunde’s family at their home in Oroszlany, Hungary. I remember eating spicy carp soup — containing the fish that was swimming in the family’s bathtub when I first arrived — the one that caused me to scream. I indulged in delectable chestnut cream pastries, prepared by her grandmother. I marveled at architecture reflecting Turkish influences, dating to Hungary’s inclusion in the Ottoman Empire.  I spied my first minaret.

Tunde and I were traveling to Prague for a weekend of museums and cafés. Neither of us were beer drinkers, although Czech brews were considered particularly tasty. My passport, emblazoned with an American eagle, designated me as one of very few “capitalists” on board.

The train slowed, brakes screeching, as we approached the Czech border. Puffs of cigarette smoke infused the night air, emanating from guards waiting on the platform. Doors slammed open and shut as uniformed men stepped aboard. Guards proceeded from compartment to compartment demanding “dokumenty” (documents).

Tunde and I brought food for our journey: apples, sandwiches of cured Hungarian sausage, cookies and a thermos of tea. We also packed a secret weapon: two large, succulent onions. As the guards approached, we waited in tense anticipation to unleash our volley. Our compartment door slid open — these folks never knocked — as we ferociously bit into our onions. An explosion of pungent, tear-inducing juice penetrated the air. We smiled as we handed over our Hungarian and American passports, returning to taking alternating bites of our sandwiches and onions. I remember wafting my hand-held stink bomb through the cramped compartment to facilitate full fumigating effect. We remained calmly polite, eyes tearing, as our cramped quarters surrendered to tiny droplets of onion mist.

The guards reviewed our documents, winced just a little, and left. They did not linger to search through socks, bras or underwear. Tears streamed down our faces as the door slammed shut. Tunde and I opened the window, laughing hysterically as we flooded our onion-steeped space with chilled winter air. We settled in to enjoy the remainder of our dinner, tossing our onions into the darkness. We felt proud. As two young women travelling alone behind the Iron Curtain, we outsmarted prying men in uniforms. One of my sweetest memories of youth remains flavored by the distinct aroma of onions.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at or